Microsoft’s Clippy and the rise of the Friendly Robot


Clippy is the new face of AI - Clippy on a monitor next to two robots in the post apocalypse

A year ago, more or less, ChatGPT launched. Back then, many saw it as quite the useful tool to save some time or, perhaps, just publish as much crap online as possible. But things have changed since then, as AI shifted from being a useful tool to basically threatening most creative jobs. That’s not an achievement to scoff at, for sure. With governments panicking, people afraid of being replaced, and the robot apocalypse incoming, there is still one thing AI seems to be sorely lacking: a friendly face.

Indeed, as much as they want to present themselves as useful and friendly tools, or even chatbots, none of these so-called AIs seem to have an actual face. Their logos are, instead, generic squiggly lines which don’t really communicate much. Generally, we still represent AI much like a cover of a 1950s Isaac Asimov book. I would guess that speaks to our need of distancing ourselves for fear of being replaced. Still, a robotic face would never work. Who would want to interact with an AI that looks like it can’t wait to reply, “Sorry Dave, I can’t let you do that”? Exactly.

Clippy and the rise of the friendly robots - erotica with Clippy
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Clippy is the perfect companion for erotica

So, while we debate what face could work for a dangerous and powerful tool, I would propose going for the strongest marketing force of all time. Nostalgia, of course, so let’s go for Clippy. Remember him? Her? I’d say Clippy (or well, Clippit) identifies as they/them. The little paper-clip would show up while you were typing Word documents in the late 90s, to try and be helpful or to just annoy you with random sound effects.

Clippy was born after the failure of Microsoft Bob in 1995, a sort of front-end desktop application designed to allow people that had never touched a computer to have an easy time learning how Windows 95 worked. Knocking on a door to log in your computer, choosing a book from a library to launch a program, rooms that would function as your desktop. But no one really wanted to use Bob and no one even liked Rover, a friendly dog that would guide the user through the process. Imagine that, PC users not liking a dog. A different era, for sure.

Clippy and the rise of the robots - Microsoft Bob
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Microsoft Bob's log-in screen

Originally created on a Mac, right from the start, Clippy was the character that would constantly interrupt the user while they worked. Bill Gates often mocked it, so much that the entire team would rename Clippy tfc, or “the fucking clown”. But, as much as no one really seemed to like Clippy, not even their creators, the lil’ attachment that could, never seemed to go away. After Microsoft retired the idea of the assistant in Windows XP, its demise was almost celebrated. Microsoft even went as far as producing a series of animated shorts for its retirement.

But users were not ready to let go, so much so that the slow outpouring of fan mail led to Microsoft bringing Clippy back, almost twenty years later. That delicate balance between love and hate, the constant interruptions and much-doubted usefulness, I do believe Clippy would make the perfect AI mascot. At the very least, the one perfect for Microsoft’s very own faceless Bing AI. In fact, it is such a good idea that someone has already made a Windows AI app with Clippy as a frontend for ChatGPT.

They still are a character that Microsoft is keeping alive, be that for the memes or other commercial reasons, but they still seem to hang around in Teams backgrounds and Microsoft 365. Considering that our homes are invaded with generic AI presence — Siri in our pockets and Alexa in our bathrooms — Clippy is probably a much more reassuring presence. After all, all that they wanted to do was help, and isn’t that what AI is all about?

Clippy and the rise of the friendly robots - a sort of kawaii Clippy
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Clippy-chan as a front-end for ChatGPT

As mortal and defenseless humans on a planet heading straight to hell, we all need a friendly face to interact with, but of course - since many are already quite defensive towards artificial intelligence - it can’t definitely be *too* friendly. At the very least, a human face would be a terrible, creepy idea. Instead, imagine asking Clippy to create a sweaty fan fiction between two famous Youtubers. The creeping sense of guilt would already be quite high as Clippy would start tapping its tiny metal hands on your screen. “Are you sure you want to do that?” they would probably chime.

If you asked people using Office in the 90s what was great about Clippy, they would probably tell you “nothing”. But, as for why Microsoft should bring it back, they would answer “because it was fun” or perhaps for “the human touch” that only a slightly animated clip could provide. At the very least, you wouldn’t feel guilty for screaming at Clippy for not doing what you asked them to. They always seemed a little glutton for punishment. Unless we all unite in force and vocally ask to bring back Bonzi buddy, but, perhaps, there’s only so much evil this planet can tolerate.

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